Red-Eye To Babylon
I'm headed to nowhere on the deal of a lifetime. Around me, the body of the Descobrimento hums quietly. Astral radiation, electromagnetic sprays, and shoals of microparticulate wash off of its alabaster flanks. But for my gin and tonic, I am alone in business class.
I take a sip, letting carbonation and juniper mingle on my tongue. My work on Babylon is going to be little more than a formality. A handshake protocol meted out in flesh rather than inter-system buoy-squawk. Babylon is wrapped in the clutches of the Charybdis Nebula, and electronic communication tends to fail across that great body of distance.
Cabral Corp needed a body onsite to officialize our joint research project: an assay into the peculiarities of local space. I, being the most junior of the Board, was promptly selected and packed off into the Novo Sargasso.
Thirteen hours of quiet flight, and then another four through the nebula. I would resent it if it wasn't little more than a pinprick in the span of my existence. And while there are occasionally hazards to navigate in the black, there is a long history of immigration to Babylon.
Very few return, but that is the nature of colonization out in the expanse.
Directly to my left, a viewscreen chimes. In a low-altitude aircraft, this would be a window, but a thin pane of plexi in between man and void does not make for great commuter service. Text scrolls across the window, advising me that we will be passing through the edges of the Charybdis shortly.
Ships go missing in the nebula from time to time, but not at the edges. My flight is automated and safe. I am not worried. I tap on the viewscreen to take a peek out the cameras on the Descobrimento's left side. The nebula hangs there, beautiful and bright; like the bruise on the edge of purpling.
"Our time in the nebula," scrolls a new text bar across the view, "will be four standard hours, thirty minutes, and forty seven seconds. During this period, mild auditory and visual hallucinations have been reported, as well as transient bouts of cognitive impairment such as aphasia. Commonly these feelings are described as pleasant. Should you experience genuine discomfort, please notify the in-flight systems and a tranquilizer will be dispersed."
Satisfied with the delivery, the scrolling bar clicks off.
I yawn and take another mouthful of gin and tonic. I'm just rolling the burr of the bubbles over my tongue when something changes in the hum of the Descobrimento. It's a subtle shift at first, but I listen intently and after a moment the nature of the change becomes apparent. The vessel is singing softly.
I am surprised by this, but not as surprised as I am when I realize that there are words woven in with the melody. They are almost discernible to me. My mind strains to understand them. I gulp the rest of my drink and grip my arm-rests.
And as I do, ghosts of sensation race my skin.
"Michael," a voice whispers right behind my ears. "Beloved."
Arms reach around the back of my seat, folding comfortably across my chest. A chin rests on my shoulder. A pulse thrums in rhythm to mine.
I know who the voice belongs to.
"Michael," Maryanne says again, her voice just as it was before the accident, "I need you to carry a message for me. Carry it close to you. Carry it as far as it will go."
I blink. My head is swimming. I feel light and half-real, like a character in someone else's sim. "What message?" I ask.
Maryanne's lips brush beneath my ear. She opens her mouth and what comes out is a roar of static and tone.
My skull strains, but I am able to make out a single word.
My hotel on Babylon is built like a pyramid. Its name is the Sol Azteca and each room is decorated in robust motifs of stonework and vines to a time before gunpowder and sea-treading plague. I pay a porter to handle my bags and I am too exhausted from my trip to quite catch what she says.
Spread out on the bed, which is a luxury of smart-foam padding and synthetic alpaca wool, I consult my digital assistant. It is five hours into the day-cycle; the local equivalent of noon. The numbers swim before my eyes, reshuffling into nonsense and I pinch the bridge of my nose. My first meeting begins shortly.
Perhaps the drink had been a mistake. I remember having to be shaken awake by the automated flight attendant.
If I let myself lie here, I decide, I may never get back up again.
I heave myself to my feet, splashing water on my face from the room's kitchenette. While not as strong a restorative as I need, it fulfills its purpose. I order what I hope is a coffee from my digi and have it sent to the front desk, there to steam in anticipation of my hands.
In the back of my head, static kettle-hisses.
I am lucky, I decide. The meeting will be a short one. Afterward, I will nap and wrestle with the problem of how to book a flight back home.
When I had scheduled my trip to Babylon, there had been nothing but cargo shuttles returning.
The Babylon Minister of Research and Development greets me with an indecipherable formality, holding out a firm, weathered hand. I clasp it and garble something polite in reply. He looks at me strangely and we sit down.
We are in a boardroom. Its utilitarian walls are interrupted only by a large white screen and a projector. The projector hums to life, throwing an orbital view of Babylon onto the screen.
I say something complimentary about the world and the Minister stares sharply at me. He asks me a question, his tone serious, and I am unable to catch the gist of his words.
I apologize for my transit-lag and ask him politely if he could repeat himself. Or at least I try to.
What comes out of my mouth instead is nonsense. Syllabic sludge. In alarm, I try to rephrase the request, but the words are just as hopeless the second time through. I stop and point at my throat, then pull up my digi. My fingers scurry over the keys, which are engraved with foreign pictoglyphs.
The Minister just looks at me a sighs.
Two hours and four cups of excellent local coffee later, we have re-established communication after a fashion. Pantomime is the universal idiot's tongue and the projector is a welcome aide.
In spite of this, I am surprised how well I am able to read the Minister's reaction to me. He seems startled not at the utter obliteration of the one and only language that I know, but that I am unable to switch to another language and tell him about it.
Over and over, he shows me pictures of the Charybdis. He gestures at it emphatically, as if trying to introduce his fiancee to a hard-of-hearing uncle. He makes a sound that is almost like static. Almost like a dial-tone.
Then he switches languages. Three or four times slowly, then more at speed. The cadence of his gibberish changes again and again as he cycles through a full dozen tongues. He buzzes for more coffee and when the man from reception arrives with a silver pot, the two have a brief exchange in a thirteenth before the man departs. Every word of this is lost on me.
Picking up a pointer, the Minister draws pictures on the screen. He shows me a giant buildings crowding a planet. Cabral, I guess. He draws a stick figure beside it and writes its name above it. Then he draws the figure's head in greater detail, showing a maze of inter-connected words inside it.
Lastly, he draws a nebula and changes all of the words in the head to the same four-letter sequence.
Then he points at me.
I stare back at him bluntly, not comprehending.
He scrubs the scene. Draws Babylon. Puts himself behind it. Zooms in on his own headspace to show words in dozens of distinct languages. Crosses one of them out and replaces it with the four letter phrase.
I feel cold all over.
The Minister looks at me like I'm a terribly slow dog that has just learned to sit.
We order lunch.
I seem to be something of a curiosity to him, even if my value as a business partner is compromised, so the Minister does not send me to a hospital ward or pack me onto a freight shuttle home. Instead, he invites me to his terraced garden that night.
The stars are a blinding sprawl overhead. There is no pollution to mask them, and off to the east I see the spider-webbed fingers of a bruise. Charybdis.
The Minister motions towards it and then to me, as if we are newly met guests that he is inviting to speak.
I am just working out how to tell him this is impossible through the medium of charades when fingertips brush my ribs and I feel a presence pressing against my back. Hair that isn't mine falls down the front of my right shoulder.
I hear humming and static. And tone.
And Maryanne says with perfectly clarity "he's frustrated, but he's still hoping that you can serve as his translator."
"How?" I ask, and I am gratified when she responds to the question. "I can't go home like this. No one on Cabral would understand me."
"Not in the way you use the word, no," says Maryanne.
The Minister sees me talking at my shoulder and smiles. He takes a step back and pats his own wrist affectionately.
"What other way can understanding work?" I ask. "You either get what someone else is saying, or you don't."
"That is a very simple way of thinking," Maryanne chides me, but her words are gentle. "Do you know the expression 'to catch someone's drift'?"
I nod slowly.
"I'm like that," she says. "I was drifting. And you caught me. And since you're carrying me with you, others can too."
I shudder. An urge rises sharp and sudden in my gut to fling myself off the lip of the building. Plummet down to the causeway below.
Firm hands hold me close. I stand still.
"Think of it as a blessing," Maryanne tells me. "I've been waiting a long time for an ambassador. You are a perfect fit."
There is no one here to understand me when I turn my head to the stars and wish aloud that I had never come here. But back on Cabral there will be.
And they'll study me closely.
Until they hear the static in the backs of their heads.